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Physical therapy helps distance runner return to her sport

| Date Posted: 9/28/2010

PINEHURST – Kelly McCall has been athletic all of her life. Golfing, tennis, basketball, running, she does them all.

Kelly McCall

Distance runner Kelly McCall (at right) found relief for a painful calf injury with a therapy called Active Release Technique.

A 2008 running injury put everything on hold, though, even threatening her future as a runner – until a treatment offered by a physical therapist at FirstHealth’s Moore Rehab outpatient rehabilitation program made a huge difference in her life.

“I’m sure happy to be running again,” she says.

A golfing standout as an undergrad at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and later a golf pro at the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, McCall was preparing for a marathon when “something happened” during a training run.

“I about collapsed in pain,” she recalls. “I ran for a few more miles and figured it was a Charley horse that would be better in a day or two. It felt like cramps, but the worst I’d ever had.”

She tried salt tablets, drank more water, improved her diet and even substituted running for swimming and biking for a while, but every activity produced the same severe cramping in her left calf.

“Eventually, I was doing nothing at all,” she says. “With almost everything, I would get cramps in a few minutes.”

McCall, who is a physical therapy student at UNC, eventually consulted a Chapel Hill orthopaedist. He ordered an MRI and “all sorts of technological interventions to figure out what was going on,” she says.

One of those tests, a needle and gauge procedure, tested the pressure in her injured calf and revealed that she had anterior compartment syndrome, a painful condition that occurs when an overused muscle becomes too big for the surrounding sheath.

Rodney Tolentino, P.T.

Rodney Tolentino, P.T.

McCall’s doctor recommended surgery that would involve cutting the muscle sheath to allow the injured muscle to expand during a lengthy rehabilitation and recovery time. When the surgeon, who was about to leave town for several weeks, recommended physical therapy in the interim, McCall’s friend Heather MacMillan suggested that she contact FirstHealth physical therapist Rodney Tolentino about a therapy called Active Release Technique.

MacMillan is also a FirstHealth physical therapist and distance runner.

“Kelly and I are friends and were training for the same race when she got hurt,” says MacMillan. “I had tried some massage, strain-counter-strain techniques (another manual technique) and trigger point release, and she just wasn’t getting better. I have had Active Release in the past at an Ironman race, and it really helped me to get through the race with my own soft tissue problems. Obviously, I knew Rodney was certified and so it just seemed ideal to have him here and to see if he could help her.”

According to Tolentino, compartment syndrome is usually caused by overuse and is fairly common in distance runners like McCall.

“It’s caused by a lack of oxygen in the muscle, which gets bound up,” he says. “There’s less healing when you continue to overuse it.”

Active Release Technique (ART) is a patented therapy that Tolentino – a frequent Ironman participant – had observed and undergone at previous Ironman events. He had been trained and certified in ART therapy during a four-day continuing education seminar in Orlando, Fla.

According to Tolentino, ART uses manually applied pressure to break up the fiber in the affected muscle area – increasing oxygen and blood flow to “get the muscle working again.”

“It allows the patient/athlete to be able to return to physical activity again,” he says.

Both McCall and Tolentino were pretty certain by her second treatment that it was going to help with her condition.

“After one or two visits, we could see that the muscle was loosening up,” Tolentino says.  “People usually feel it right away.”

“It was definitely noticeable at the first appointment that there was some relief,” says McCall.

Within a week and a half of her first treatment, McCall was running again, first a mile, then three and eventually more. A few months later, she was running a half-marathon.

McCall, who spent the summer as a physical therapy intern at FirstHealth’s outpatient rehab program on Aviemore Road, couldn’t be more pleased.

“I’m happy to report that I ran a half-marathon in November 2009, completely pain free, and I am looking forward to many more races thanks to the help of Rodney and the Active Release Therapy,” she says.

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